It’s been almost three years since Sitka’s primary haulout at Halibut Point Marine announced it would be closing up shop. Since then, the Sitka Assembly has gone down a few roads to try to get a haulout built: It’s held special meetings, issued “requests for proposals” from the private sector, and sought federal funding, but it keeps hitting the same roadblock – the money just hasn’t materialized. City Administrator John Leach said that wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“We are, as you’ve seen, applying for every grant out there,” he said. “And that’s pretty much a daily task, is trying to find sources of funding and creative ways to do this.”
The city has also tried to work with outside groups to get a haulout built at the Gary Paxton Industrial Park. Last year, it approved a lease and RFP with the Sitka Community Boatyard- a grassroots group that had secured funding with the plan to convert existing infrastructure at the park into a workable haulout. Last month, organizers said the costs of construction more than doubled, and they no longer had adequate funding to complete the project. So they relinquished their lease with the city in April. But the group still wants to work with the city to make a haulout happen.
While the assembly is hanging its hopes on another federal R.A.I.S.E. grant, it may never come to fruition. If they do win the grant, they may not know until this fall, which means no matter what, a working haulout is at least another year out, for an issue that’s urgent to many. Without one, fishermen must take their boats out of town, or repair them on the city grid.
Assembly member Kevin Knox said it’s time for the community to consider what it would mean to build a public haulout if the grant funding doesn’t materialize, and whether they should put that question out to a public vote in the October municipal election. Should the city fund the construction and operations of a haulout? And if so, should it be funded through a sales tax increase? An excise tax or a separate fee directed at large boat owners?
“There’s all kinds of questions about how you retire this debt. How you take care of the the debt service, if you did go out and bond for this,” he said.
Leach said that if the assembly wanted to publicly fund a haulout, he estimated it would cost somewhere between $10 and $13 million. With user fees covering operating costs- it would end up costing the city around $620,000 a year in subsidies from the general fund to pay off the debt.
Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz wasn’t sure pursuing a new tax was the right call, because those have met pushback from the public in the past.
“I fear having staff and sponsors working on an ordinance extensively, that, you know, it might feel good for us to do, but in the back of our hearts we all know…is going to fail at the ballot,” Eisenbeisz said.
Assembly member Thor Christianson agreed that while there was a lot of community support for a haulout, they would see pushback from the public who don’t own boats, and haulout proponents would have to prepare to campaign for their cause.
“The people that want the haulout facility are going to have some heavy lifting, just to encourage the rest of the community to support it,” he said. “Because we can’t really do much from here, and nor should we, to advocate for this,” Christianson said. “The last time we raised taxes was for the PAC and the assembly had little or nothing to do with that.”
Assembly members Thor Christianson and Kevin Mosher suggested a work session to review possible public funding options, like a new tax or fee, and asked that city staff bring forward a few “big picture” options for consideration. Mayor Eisenbeisz also suggested the assembly host a town hall as a first step to gather public input.
The assembly didn’t take a vote or make any decisions on exactly what steps to take next. No member came out strongly in favor of one funding option over another. But they all agreed that a haulout is needed, along with the money to build one.
Assembly pledges to cut city’s carbon footprint
Energy costs and conservation were on the agenda when the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (5-24-22). The group unanimously approved a resolution to “decarbonize” city operations by 2030.
Sponsor Kevin Mosher said the hope is to give the city an edge when applying for grants at a time when the federal government is funding projects that tackle environmental issues.
“It’s something to show outside entities that we have a plan, we’re moving forward,” Mosher said. And so it is to give us a goal one to work for. And in my mind, what I see is as far as this is concerned, is if we’re able to hire a sustainability coordinator, this would be their basic charge.”
The plan is to seek federal grants to expand the city’s electric capacity out Halibut Point Road, and, over time, to convert the city’s vehicle fleet to electric, and to heat all municipal buildings with electricity.
Dave Miller liked the resolution because it doesn’t lock the city into anything, and could mean more savings in the future.
“It sort of pushes us forward and says, ‘We really need to start looking at this stuff.’ I mean, if we look at the price of fuel now, you know, it’s about twice as much as it was just not long ago,” Miller said. “So we need to start figuring out how we can save a little bit, whether it be electric cars in the city…there are a whole variety of things out there that we have to look at and see what really works for us.”
It wasn’t the only energy related decision the assembly made on Tuesday night. The group unanimously voted to increase the city’s utility cost subsidy from 65 to 100 dollars a month for households that qualify. Kent Barkhau said he was glad the assembly was thinking about reducing the cost of utilities for families in need, but thought there may have been a path to address utility affordability and decarbonization in one swoop.
I think we could think about using that kind of investment, or that kind of funding, to initiate a program that provides heat pumps for families, households, that that qualify for a subsidy, and thereby sort of achieved two goals,” he said.
Finally, the assembly voted to join a group interested in establishing the first ever “green cruise corridor” in Southeast Alaska. The “Maritime Green Corridor First Mover Commitment” was originally proposed by the Port of Seattle, and is supported by most major cruise lines. It will explore the feasibility of zero emission cruise ships and an industry transition away from carbon. Most assembly members were on board with joining the group, including Crystal Duncan.
We know that the cruise industry is super important to our economy here in Sitka,” Duncan said, and added. “If there are efforts to look at the environmental impact, I think that we should take those steps.”
But Mosher asked that they hold off for a few months until they hire the sustainability coordinator, and then consider joining the initiative.
The motion to join the maritime green corridor commitment passed on a 5-2 vote with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz and Kevin Mosher opposed.
Assembly passes FY23 budgets
The Sitka Assembly has finalized the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, bringing an end to the months-long budgeting cycle that began in January.
When the group met last night (5-24-22), it unanimously approved a $37 million general fund budget, with a surplus of around $380,000. That includes funding the Sitka School District to the cap, or the maximum allowable by state law, plus non-instructional funding, to the tune of around $8.8 million.
The assembly also unanimously approved the city’s enterprise fund budgets – with utility rate increases across the board. Most of the rate hikes are set higher than usual, to keep up with the highest rate of inflation in nearly four decades.
Users will see a 4% electric rate increase, a 5% jump in water rates. Solid waste rates will rise by 7.5%, and wastewater and moorage rates will jump by around 8%.